By Mark Valencia
The wishful thinking is that a new Philippine president will reverse the more independent and equidistant foreign policy of Rodrigo Duterte vis-à-vis China and the US.
The reality is that Ferdinand Marcos Jr – the son of the late brutal dictator – has an insurmountable lead with little more than two weeks to go to the May 9 presidential election and is thus almost certain to succeed Duterte.
To the chagrin of many Filipino Americanophiles, it appears that Marcos will more or less continue Duterte’s policy toward China and the South China Sea. Like Duterte, Marcos prefers to continue to set the 2016 arbitration ruling at The Hague aside. It’s “no longer available to us” since it is dismissed by Beijing as a “political farce,” he has said, and “We are left only with a bilateral agreement, and that’s what we should pursue.”
But there is wisdom in their strategic reasoning. They perceive that American power in the region is waning and that China’s is rising. They understand that China is a fellow South China Sea coastal country, claimant and maritime neighbor that the Philippines will have to live and get along with for the long term.
The Philippines won the 2016 arbitration rejecting China’s historic claim to a large portion of the South China Sea. But China has refused to recognize the decision. Duterte and apparently Marcos think the costs to the Philippines and its people of trying to implement the arbitration result now would far outweigh any ethereal boost to national pride.
Rather, they conclude that the situation requires deft hedging and the art of delay until a time more ripe for resolution of the South China Sea issues in the Philippines’ favor. So they want to negotiate temporary shared access to the disputed resources.
The result of this policy has been at least some continued access to the fisheries for Filipino fishers and the possibility of “joint development” of any oil and gas in the disputed area. More important, Philippine-China relations, including economic relations, remain good.
The alternative advocated by critics of the policy of Duterte and likely that of Marcos, trying to implement the arbitration decision immediately, would likely result in no access to the Philippines’ own resources and crippling economic, political and even military retribution by China.
Apparently Filipino Americanophiles hope that their big brother, the US, will risk war with China to defend Philippine territorial and maritime claims in the South China Sea. But it is wishful thinking to hope that the heavily beleaguered US government and its body politic will support expending American blood and treasure to defend Philippine claims to remote rocks and resources.
It did not do so regarding the China-Philippines standoff at Scarborough Shoal and it is unlikely to do so in similar situations, despite what it says. Indeed, there is sufficient wiggle room in the US-Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty to avoid a direct military response.
In a similar vein, one of the Asia Times articles, “Japan looks to Philippines for a new era Quad,” makes a great deal out of the recent Japan-Philippines “2 plus 2” ministerial talks for which the Philippine foreign and defense ministers were “summoned” to Tokyo. It does not acknowledge that Japan is acting at the behest of the US.
Instead, it wishfully interprets this meeting as an indication of a new Quad in the making – Australia, Japan, the US and the Philippines. It describes the meeting as “boosting defense cooperation.”
The author seems to hope that the two will reach a Reciprocal Access Agreement for their militaries like that between Japan and Australia. That is what the US and Japan want. Indeed, the major quid pro quo the Philippines has to offer to such an anti-China coalition is its geo-strategic location for the emplacement of military assets, including medium-range missiles that can threaten China.
This desire to sacrifice Philippine ideational independence to enable America’s anti-China strategy smacks of neocolonialism. Not only would returning to the American “fold” continue to make the Philippines and its people indefinitely beholden and subservient to its former colonial master for its defense, but it would also make them a target for China in an outbreak of armed hostilities.
These proposals should be considered in the context of the Philippines and its people suffering at the hands of the Americans and the Japanese.
American colonialism in the Philippines tried to Americanize Filipino culture, and to some extent succeeded. The legacy of American colonialism is still very apparent in the Philippines.
As Duterte has put it, the Philippines is a “sovereign state, and we have long ceased to be a colony.” He believes he is freeing his country and people from the ideational and political shackles of American colonialism. What the above-cited Asia Times articles and their author’s fellow Americanophiles propose would continue and deepen this dependent and subservient relationship.
More bluntly, pro-US and now pro-Japan analysts and politicians in the Philippines just don’t get it. America and Japan do not give a damn about the Philippines or Filipinos per se. They need the Philippines to help in their strategy to encircle and contain China. But they won’t die for them: That is the job of the Filipinos.
As for Japan’s overture and providing access for its military, it should be remembered that during its occupation of the country, the Japanese military treated Filipinos as subhuman –undertaking mass beheadings, sexual slavery, bayoneting of babies and other atrocious war crimes.
Ironically, this overture from Japan came just as the Philippines was commemorating what it calls its “Day of Valor.” This is in remembrance of its defeat at the hands of the Japanese and the forced transfer by the Japanese Imperial Army of 60,000-80,000 prisoners of war from Bataan and Mariveles to Tarlac. Outside the Philippines, this is known as the infamous Bataan Death March in which as many as 18,000 died from severe physical abuse and wanton killings.
Worse, the critics of Rodrigo Duterte’s policy and the likely policy of Ferdinand Marcos Jr are being disingenuous. They know that these leaders are not abandoning and will not abandon the arbitral decision. Indeed, Marcos will likely follow Duterte’s policy of diplomatic protests of China’s more egregious transgressions and deployment of Philippine Coast Guard and Navy vessels to demonstrate non-acquiescence.
They simply think it is better for the Philippines and its people to bide their time until the situation is more favorable for implementing it. As Duterte recently said in this regard, “Everything that happens in this world has a right time. Just wait for it, it will come.”
Indeed, in this case haste will certainly make waste for the Philippines and its people.
Mark J Valencia is an internationally recognized maritime policy analyst, political commentator and consultant focused on Asia. Most recently he was a visiting senior scholar at China’s National Institute for South China Sea Studies and continues to be an adjunct senior scholar with the Institute. Valencia has published some 15 books and more than 100 peer-reviewed journal articles.